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Children 'locked in police cells'

Children, the mentally unwell and other vulnerable people are being locked in cells because police custody is being used as a substitute for social and health care, inspectors have said.

The majority of people detained by the police were reasonably well cared for but inconsistency of practices led on occasion to poor treatment, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found.

Measures of control available to the police are designed more for those who are violent through ill-will rather than for children or mentally ill, the inspectors added.

And data from police forces suggest that people from African-Caribbean groups were disproportionately represented in the number of detentions and strip-searches when compared to the general population.

HM inspector of constabulary Dru Sharpling said: " There can be no argument that the needs of a child, left abandoned by his or her parents, or a person in the midst of a mental health crisis, are often very different to those of a serial offender.

"Yet the bricks and mortar of the police cells do not and cannot make that distinction.

"I think the public would be surprised to learn that police cells are very often full of vulnerable adults and children, rather than suspects accused of serious crimes.

"I am particularly concerned to find that on occasions when officers were left with no other option, they resorted to detaining vulnerable people in police custody in order to get them the support they needed."

Frontline police officers and custody officers are spending significant amounts of time on caring for people who are mentally unwell, inspectors said, but p oor data has hindered the ability of the police to identify how vulnerable people are treated in custody.

College of Policing lead for crime and criminal justice Dave Tucker said: "T he HMIC has found that demands placed on frontline police officers and custody staff by people who have a significant need for mental health care and treatment were highly apparent in every force inspected.

"While health, social care and children's services can and do refuse to admit vulnerable people into their care, the police do not have this option.

"Too often police are being used as the service of first resort, rather than the service of last resort and it's encouraging that HMIC acknowledge that police custody should not be the default option for vulnerable people in need of care."

Home Secretary Theresa May said: " I commissioned Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary to conduct this inspection because I was concerned about the welfare of vulnerable children and adults, including those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, in police custody.

"I welcome today's report which makes clear how much remains to be done to ensure that those who end up in police cells, especially those in custody for their own safety, receive proper treatment and respect.

"I have always been clear that the use of force must be lawful, proportionate and necessary in all the circumstances, that people experiencing a mental health crisis should receive health-based care and support rather than being held in a police cell, and that children who are charged with an offence should be transferred to suitable local authority accommodation instead of being detained overnight in custody.

"Working with police forces, we already have a range work under way to tackle some of the issues HMIC have highlighted, including improving data collection on the use of police powers in relation to people with mental ill health and the use of force, as well as reviewing police training on these issues.

"We will review HMIC's findings and recommendations carefully to see how they can inform this work, and respond in due course."

Deputy Chief Constable Nicholas Ephgrave, who is the national policing lead for custody, said: "We are pleased that HMIC's report acknowledges that the vast majority of vulnerable people detained by police are treated respectfully. It also recognises that more needs to be done by our partners in health and social services to prevent vulnerable people ending up in police custody: an outcome which rarely serves the best interests of children, people with mental ill health or dementia.

"We will work with the Home Office, the College of Policing and partners such as Health and Wellbeing Boards and Local Safeguarding Boards on the recommendations to ensure that when vulnerable people do need to be held in police custody, they are treated sensitively and appropriately, and that appropriate detail regarding all aspects of their detention is recorded."

Meanwhile, the report also found police were being called by parents or staff at children's homes when they could not cope with a youngster's behaviour.

The report said: "Police officers we spoke to told us that they were called frequently to deal with incidents where parents or children's homes could not cope with a child's disruptive behaviour and sought to use the police as a way to discipline children."

Among the incidents in which children were arrested included one of two sisters detained following a fight over a TV remote control and a 17-year-old held for pushing his stepfather and damaging a garden fence.

"Inspectors were particularly concerned to find that when force policies required officers to take 'positive action' in response to reports of domestic abuse, this was interpreted in some forces as always requiring an arrest, even for children," the report added.

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